Thursday, 24 March 2016

Science Fiction: Where the Revolutionaries live

Where can progressives find inspiring future visions? That question occurred to me last Saturday whilst watching the journalist Owen Jones talk at the Guardian column-writing Masterclass. Jones was saying that whilst those on the left offer criticism of policies, they often fail to inspire people with alternatives.

And then it struck me that there was a rich source already available, of which many activists seem fairly unconscious.

Speculative fiction – Science Fiction, Fantasy and Utopian writing -- has been a source of alternative visions for centuries. Science Fiction (SF), especially, seems to me inherently political, even radical. This is because radicalism is about taking a questioning stance concerning the institutions of the day, and turning conventional assumptions upside down. This is exactly SF’s job.

Science Fiction shows us, through imagined future societies, that our current ways of living are temporary and often arbitrary. Arthur C. Clarke wrote in 1949 that science fiction writers “have no love of American capitalism, which we do not suppose is any more permanent than any other social system…." (in Greetings, Carbon Based Bipeds, p. 57) In a thousand years, should we survive, the economic, social and political systems that seem to us so permanent will surely have crumbled to dust.

This long perspective is important because it destroys the illusion that ‘there is no alternative.’ There are many possible ways of arranging our lives. And while SF rarely offers roadmaps into the future, it does provide a space where these different possibilities can be explored.

The radical nature of SF is sometimes obscured by the idea that it’s just about technology. This is bolstered by the mythology of consumerism. We live in a world that’s filled to the bursting with gadgets, and every year brings dazzling new innovations. If you watch car and smartphone ads on TV, you might think that progress equals technological progress only.

This ignores the strong tradition of social Science Fiction, a genre that includes two of the best known works of 20th century SF, Brave New World and 1984. In both books, technological innovations interact with (not terribly pleasant) societies with significantly different social and political arrangements to ours. Both are dystopias, but it’s also possible to imagine better – or at least different -- societies. For instance, Ursula Le Guin’s 1974 novel the Dispossessed fairly convincingly imagines the interactions between a future, other world capitalist society and its anarchist offshoot.

Social SF seems especially important today, when many of us own tech straight out of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but where our political and social structures seem mired in the reactionary, even feudal, past. Many, I think, feel trapped in their current ways of life and struggle to imagine how things could be better.

This problem – Owen’s problem -- has long been acknowledged by SF writers. At the 65th National Book Awards in 2014, the great SF Author Ursula Le Guin  noted that “hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope.”

Because Shelley was right; poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Social change begins in the imagination, and persists despite all opposing forces. SF hints that the act of imagining a better world is the first step to realising it. For change to happen, the fire of the imagination must be lit, and SF is an ideal site for this conflagration.